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Our Youth Have Poor Work Ethic, Manners

By Ruben Navarrette

What has happened to Americans? Once a proud people, many of us are now so thin-skinned that it's easy to get our feelings hurt.

As when someone says there are jobs that Americans won't do at any wage, or that many of us lack a work ethic, or that young people in particular make lousy employees because they take themselves too seriously and don't take work seriously enough.

That's essentially the kind of straight talk Labor Secretary Elaine Chao recently dished out to Parade magazine. Chao said that American workers could lose jobs to foreign workers -- and not just because the latter often work for lower wages. It's more than that, she said: Foreign workers often have better skills, and better manners.

"American employees must be punctual, dress appropriately and have good personal hygiene," Chao said. "They need anger-management and conflict-resolution skills, and they have to be able to accept direction.
Too many young people bristle when a supervisor asks them to do something."

Tough stuff. But, in many cases, true enough. After all, Chao was simply passing along what she has heard from U.S. employers. Still, the comments got her in hot water. Chao was blasted on CNN's "Lou Dobbs Tonight," a show whose ratings have soared since the host started peddling the fear that corporate executives are "exporting America." An online publication, the Job Destruction Newsletter, went so far as to accuse Chao -- who is Asian-American -- of making "racist remarks about U.S. workers."

The racism charge is absurd. The labor secretary was critical of American workers, all right, but since when are all Americans part of one race?

The newsletter also said that Chao was "manipulating our sense of self-esteem and value to instill an inferiority complex in us so that we will accept the destruction of the American middle class." The irony is that, according to researchers, inferiority complexes are not the problem with Americans today -- especially the young Americans who make up "Generation Me."

That's the label psychologist Jean Twenge has given those born in the 1970s, '80s and '90s. An associate professor of psychology at San Diego State University, Twenge spent more than a dozen years examining generational differences. This included comparing studies on the self-esteem of more than 60,000 college students across the country from 1968 to 1994. As a result, Twenge has a good handle on what makes young people tick. And it isn't low self-esteem.

In an interview last year, Twenge told me that young people are all about "focus on the self and doing what's right for you rather than following social rules or rules of the society."

The fact that this latest generation isn't big on rules won't come as a surprise to human resources managers, who say they are at wits' end over dealing with young people. They tell me that potential employees under 30 do things such as strutting into interviews with an air of entitlement and acting as if they're doing the company a favor by applying to work there.

Once hired, young people too often come in on Day One wanting to be vice president but not wanting to pay the dues to get there. They want to know what the company is going to do for them, and they rarely think about what they intend to do for the company. In fact, the whole notion of working often seems like an inconvenience, something they'll tolerate until they get a minute, between YouTube and iPods, to figure out their destiny.

According to a recent report on National Public Radio, there is even a new industry where companies hire consultants to show them how to manage this self-important and overpraised generation. Employers are being advised to offer younger workers rewards for showing up on time and meeting deadlines -- things that used to be considered essentials.

When producers from the Dobbs show called the Labor Department to ask about Chao's remarks, a spokesperson claimed that the secretary's remarks "as they appeared in the magazine were taken completely out of context and are not an accurate reflection of her views."

That's too bad -- because Chao's remarks, as reported in Parade, do seem to be an accurate description of at least part of our work force. And we wonder why foreign workers are often snapped up by employers as the better deal. Why wouldn't they be?

(c) 2007, The San Diego Union-Tribune

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